Both Sides Essentially Agree in “Economist” Debate – Act Now!

A transmission substation decreases the voltag...Image via Wikipedia

The Economist magazine hosted an online debate earlier this week, on the proposition “We can solve our energy problems with existing technologies today, without the need for breakthrough innovations.”? Speaking in favor of the proposition was Joseph J. Romm, Senior Fellow at the Centre for American Progress. Speaking against was Peter Meisen, President, Global Energy Network Institute.

In my opinion, although Meisen had some good observations of some non-“business as usual” innovations that are needed, the proposition was well-defended by Romm. He argued that not only do we not have time to wait for new breakthroughs in alternative energy, we have enough technology now – solar thermal, efficiency, wind, etc. – that we can address climate change with our current capabilities. He agrees that innovations will be welcome, but they are not required.

First, new breakthrough energy technologies simply don’t enter the market fast enough to have a big impact in the time frame we care about. We need strategies that can get a 5-10% share—or more—of the global market for energy in a quarter century. Second, if you are in the kind of hurry humanity is in, then you are going to have to take unusual measures to deploy technologies far more aggressively than has ever occurred historically.

Bottom line: If we want to preserve the health and well-being of future generations, then focusing government policy and resources on speeding up existing technology deployment is far more important than focusing them on breakthrough technology development.

Meisen actually agreed completely that we need to start now with what we have today in terms of technology. But as I read it, his major point was that we need innovations not in technology, but in policy, thinking, and approach to really solve our climate and energy problems:

We now have more elegant, sophisticated and cleaner ways to generate and deliver electricity for our society. Remaining addicted to fossil fuels is damaging to our environment and bad long term policy. It is unsustainable. Aggressive policies that encourage conservation, energy efficiency, clean transport and linking renewable resources are the new priorities. Flipping our energy paradigm upside down will drive innovation and investment towards a de-carbonised future–and just makes sense..

The bottom line conclusion – get started now with the technology we have (both speakers agree) but direct some of our efforts toward new ways of solving the problem, such as improved policies from our governments (including better cooperation on international electricity transmission).

The entire debate is well worth reading on the Economist web site. They are open for comments, as am I.

(Thanks to CleanTechnica.com for the link to the debate.)

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Why My Optimism Is Tempered

Achieving energy independence in the U.S. is possible, but there are many obstacles to overcome.

On 140 acres of unused land on Nellis Air Forc...Image via Wikipedia

I wrote on Monday about why I am optimistic that we will come out of this energy mess in excellent shape. But, my optimism is not unalloyed – there are a lot of questions still to answer.

  • Is there truly enough capturable solar energy streaming down on the Earth to power a good lifestyle for all 9 billion of us in 2050? Clearly not, at least at the U.S.’s current per capita energy intensity. What about at 50% of our current energy use? That’s a target that many think we can accomplish here in the U.S., so why not around the world?
  • What about all the C02 we’ve stuck up there already? Can we do something about it that won’t end up causing as many problems as it solves? Certainly sensible steps like reversing deforestation will help a lot, but do we have time, and do we know how? Can we grow a rainforest from a burned-out meadow, even if it use to be a rainforest? This is not clear – but we should figure it out.
  • Can we do any of this fast enough? I’ve argued that the technology and knowledge are here for reducing our energy footprint in the U.S. by 50% and replacing all of the remaining energy needs with renewables, but is there time and will to do it? The sheer manpower that it will take? Even if owners of commercial real estate were willing to do the necessary retrofits to achieve the goals, because they are cost effective? More importantly, if every one agreed to do it, are there enough architects, contractors, HVAC installers, and electricians to do the work?
  • There’s a similar question for residences – most residences get enough solar energy flux on the roof to offset a good portion of their electricity use – but even if the cost were free, after first year saving, who would do the 100 million installations? Even if spread over ten years, that would keep 25,000 installers busy every day.

There are many more such questions – can we successfully combine distributed power generation (e.g., on residences) with utility energy on a gigantic scale? Where do all the materials to do these installations come from?

I’d love to hear your questions and comments about whether you’re optimistic, the obstacles you see in the road ahead, and your ideas on how to overcome the roadblocks.

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